Talking with Jacqueline, you get the sense that there are several pivotal points in her life that serve as markers — remarkable events that define personal epochs. Her experience as an Armstrong scholar in 2004 was one such event.
“My instructors would tell you that I barely said a word on the trip,” she says. “Until I got quarter-sized blisters on my feet and I had to talk.”
Jacqueline describes herself as an introvert. She has a calm, soothing voice that is as confident as it is genteel. She speaks with compassion and puts thought into her words, not rushing to conclusions or to break silences.
“While I wasn’t speaking [during Armstrong], my life was being changed in ways that I was still processing.”
Jacqueline grew up in a Mexican, Catholic household led by her mother and grandmother. She was the oldest of her siblings and generally considered herself to be a responsible, dutiful daughter.
“I was a good kid. I had a job, I was quiet, I followed the rules,” she says.
She had applied to take part in the Armstrong Scholars program and received a voicemail from Molly Huber, the NatureBridge educator who would be her future leader on the trip. Jacqueline knew what calling her back would most likely confirm: that she was accepted into the program.
“I was in the dining room, on the phone with Molly and my mom was in the kitchen. She looked at me and said, ‘you’re not going.’”
Her mother saw the two-week adventure into Yosemite National Park as a shirking of Jacqueline’s duties, and even more seriously, as abandoning her family. Jacqueline, for the first time in her life, rebelled.
“‘I’m going,’ I said, and then I walked out of the room while she continued making dinner. That was not like me. Aside from coming out, this was my biggest rebellion.”
Jacqueline’s Armstrong experience can feel distant from some of the others that are often highlighted. The challenges, the goals, the impromptu dance parties — staples in the enshrined memories of many past scholars and leaders — don’t land in her personal highlights. For Jacqueline, being an introverted 17-year old who’d yet to come out as gay meant that the smaller moments and introspective opportunities stand out in her mind.
“One of my favorite parts was the GRANITE meeting because we weren’t moving,” she says. “We got a chance to be still and spend time together without a goal in mind.”
GRANITE is an acronym, with each letter standing for an action the scholars would take during the meeting. It stands for Greeting, Reading, Appreciations, Nugget (which can be a song, short game or wildcard) I feel or Inspiration, Tonight and Tomorrow, and finally, Ending. GRANITE meetings have evolved over the years, fluctuating from leader to leader, but the basic tenets are the same and the outcomes are the same: creating community, fostering connection and unearthing vulnerability.
“At the beginning of the trip, I struggled asking for help,” says Jacqueline. “That was a difficult thing for me. It took those blisters on my feet to learn it.”
Her leaders, Molly Huber and Erica Tucker, helped coax Jacqueline into being more comfortable with not only asking for help, but in being herself. They actively created a space in which she and all the other scholars could feel free in their identities. Sometimes they inadvertently created that space, too.
“I don’t think I’ve ever told Erica this, but when the trip first started, I caught a glimpse of her Nalgene bottle. It had her initials, E.T., on it, and right beside her initials was a pride flag,” says Jacqueline, taking a moment to be silent.
“I didn’t fully know what that meant because I was from a very small community. I didn’t even have any hints at coming out until I was in college, but that was so powerful to me in retrospect.”